“Someday, I promise you, they will find a cure.”
I wanted to hear that at 13, especially from my best friend. I remember the warm reassurance that passed through me as she said it. Oh, this person understands. I’m really just like her. Maybe I won’t be a monster forever. Cerebral palsy doesn’t play well in middle school; mix in some burgeoning gayness, and you’ve got a lot going on that no one wants to touch. I don’t blame myself for wishing it away – or for reading that promise as the acceptance I craved.
If any of my friends tried that now, I’d have to sit down from laughing too hard. I doubt anyone who knows me well would have the gall. But what hasn’t changed is that most of my friends are nondisabled. That unsettles me sometimes. It’s naive to think that ableism – the kind that makes the world a lot kinder to disabled people who walk, talk, live independently, and hold full-time jobs – plays no part in giving me that option. But it’s also a numbers game; there are just more of them. And honestly, a gay disabled lady needs some ableds in her corner. The deck is too stacked, and this shit is too exhausting, to go it alone.
We’re used to a few different relationships between able-bodied and disabled people, but genuine, no-bullshit friendship isn’t really one of them. Everyone assumes it’s awkward, that no one quite knows what to say, or that the nondisabled person has incredible moral fiber. I’m confident, though, that no one I know is in this for charity. We left awkwardness at the door a long time ago (if we ever let it in at all). We support each other, and we support hard. You want allyship? Look at my friends.
I recently talked with six of them (one straight cis woman, four queer cis women, and one queer trans man) about how my disability impacts our friendships and vice versa. I wanted to tease out what makes it work and demystify a relationship that able-bodied people often ignore or deem too daunting to pursue. I’m happy to say they delivered, and now you have no excuse.
Here’s what they get right.
1. They don’t “despite” me.
“I think every able-bodied person has that hint of ‘oh, but you’re so pretty!’ or ‘oh, but you’re so…’ whatever. It’s so invalidating. ‘You’re so pretty for a person with a disability!’ It’s despite. Despite this. Instead of this and this.”
“Obviously your disability is a huge part of who you are, and you wouldn’t be the person you are without it, and I love that person. So I’m not consumed with, like, fear or caution. You’re Carrie, y’know?”
People throw “despite” around like a compliment. It’s tricky because there’s a kernel of truth there: yes, being disabled makes a lot of things a lot harder. But bias against disabled bodies – the real problem – isn’t what “despite” vilifies. My cerebral palsy is. And that approach only makes sense if you see it as an unfortunate tragedy or the short end of the stick. Personally, I don’t have time for that anymore; I put in my years of self-loathing and now I’m good, thanks. I’d much rather acknowledge it as an identity and start figuring out how enjoy it. Nondisabled friends who believe me when I say that – who respect my disability’s presence and value – are key to that process.
Ironically, they’d also be the perfect excuse to keep “despiting” if I wanted to. Able-bodied acceptance can be a get out of jail free card, a sign that you’ve “made it” and – if you’re not careful – a way to stay ashamed of your disability without examining why. People I’ve just met assume I must not care about cerebral palsy because it doesn’t keep me from participating (or succeeding) in their world. They’re happy to let me off the hook. But my friends push back by integrating it into how they understand me. They don’t endure my disability as a courtesy. Notice how it’s “obviously” part of who I am? Yeah, not obvious to everybody. But it should be.
2. But they let me be vulnerable, too.
“I think when you had your spinal surgery, that was when it was like ‘oh, this is big. This is so much bigger than I realized.’ Before that we laughed about it, and it was more about how annoying it is for you to take the stairs and things like that. We had joked about a lot of things, but this was just like ‘I’m scared.’ And that was different.”
That’s not to say disability is always fun. Living in an unreliable body can be anything from tiring to downright terrifying. Sometimes a new pain bubbles up and scares the bejeezus out of me. I can go to the doctor assuming I’m fine and come out realizing I’m not. That uncertainty, the physical and mental effort of just plain keeping up, is more than enough to swallow someone. It’s so easy to start the panic spiral – “how long can I keep this up? What if my body gives out before I’m ready?”.
My friends understand the work it takes for my pride and fear to live side by side. They don’t question how that happens or say “but I thought you love being disabled!”. They permit me a full range of emotions – including the frustration, sadness, and anger disabled people aren’t supposed to express. Contradiction and discomfort don’t faze them. And for as much as I want friends who laugh when a stranger tries to give me an exorcism on the train, I also need them to stay on the phone with me the night before a big surgery. They don’t opt out when it gets real.
3. They won’t say “that’s too much.”
“I wonder how much you have on your mind that you don’t want to ‘burden’ others with, and for that sort of thing I just have to wait until you’re ready to talk. But it’s hard because I want all the deets all the time!”
“Shutting down the conversation you want to have – I think that’s the worst thing, as a friend, you can do. If someone wants to share that with you, that’s so special, and you should feel excited and honored. You have to be appreciative and not freaked out.”
Disabled people rarely have the privilege of space. You’re doing disability right as long as no one can see or be inconvenienced by it. You earn all different kinds of praise for playing it down, staying in line, and knowing your place. (Even our workplace laws only cover “reasonable accommodation” – so you better hope your body’s not “unreasonable.”) For years, I took all that to mean having cerebral palsy was fine as long as I didn’t discuss it. As I’ve explored what it means to start talking – including writing a disability and queerness series on the big bad internet – I’ve also feared breaking that cardinal rule and becoming annoying. But my friends never say “enough.” They revel in the discoveries they make alongside me and cheer me for my work.
A lot of the people I talked to for this essay mentioned just how much I have to say about disability, which kind of hits a nerve for me as someone who lives at the intersection of identities (gay, disabled, woman) that are supposed to stay small. But they won’t let me retreat into that embarrassment. They say it with delight and pride, not to suggest I take it down a notch. They give me space to occupy when so much of the world will not.
4. They’d rather risk embarrassment than stay silent.
“I feel like I’ve learned a lot and recognized a lot of the bullshit in my own head that I didn’t realize was there. But you’ve done it in a way where I’m very comfortable telling you this, right? It’s not the type of friendship where I feel like ‘oh, if I tell her, it’s gonna taint our friendship.’ No. We both know it was bullshit. And we joke about it, like ‘oh, I think I’ve done some of these [ableist] things to you. Awkward, sorry.'”
“Now I make a lot more conscious effort to push through any spaces of discomfort where I feel like there’s something good on the other side.”
“But what do I say? When do I say it? Should I even bring it up?”
These questions loom so large over mixed-ability friendships that a lot of people just bow out. And I won’t lie: there are, in fact, wrong things to say and wrong times to say them. “Were you in an accident?”, a gem I experienced in airport security, comes to mind. Yes, you may very well embarrass yourself, kill the moment, or annoy me. Engaging with disability is risky. It is delicate. It is excruciatingly personal. It is everything you fear it could be. That doesn’t excuse you from trying.
Rather than settle into the warm and cozy silence around disability – the kind that would let them forget about it with zero consequences – my friends accept the uncertainty and forge ahead, because they want to know me. They ask questions, even if they might be the wrong ones, with the understanding that they’ll learn either way. They find value in their mistakes even as they rectify them. At bottom, reluctance to engage is just the desire to keep looking right above all else. “But it’s so awkward!” is not about me or my feelings. It perpetuates the myth that disability is something best kept quiet, and my friends aren’t interested in that. There’s nothing more impressive to me than an able-bodied person willing to risk their ego.
5. They empathize without equating.
“We were both hesitant to compare experiences [with trans and disabled identity] as that can be dangerous, but also we were like ‘fuck it, this is how we feel.’ Obviously it’s not everyone’s experience. But I think we talk a lot about how visibility and invisibility come into play with both… we’ve also talked about our larger integration into society and how society is not really built for people like you and me.”
“I think you and I as people, you with your disability and me being a woman of color and also multiracial, people are just gonna judge us before we even say anything. People assume ten things about us when we walk through the door.”
“I’m always warning my students about the dangers of analogizing between forms of oppression (saying that sexual oppression is like racial oppression runs the risk of erasing folks who experience both, for example, or of erasing pretty material differences). But on a very basic level, not fitting into the hetero monogamous paradigm, having to navigate straight public spaces and conventions… it would be hard to say these things haven’t helped me to empathize with disabled folks having to navigate spaces and conventions designed for able-bodied folks. Because I think they have. I also think [talking] with you about being queer has allowed lots of good conversation about disability to come up… the active struggle to articulate gender through a body that consistently ‘fails’ its gender has been a major nourishing aspect of our friendship since I’ve at varying points had different ideas about how my fat body is supposed to be.”
Here is where my queer friends shine. Saying they understand ableism because they’re queer is as ridiculous as saying I understand racism because I’m disabled (to be clear: NOPE), but their knowledge base makes them excellent empathizers. Opportunities for solidarity abound if you look for them: challenging norms with your body, owning a part of yourself it might be simpler to repress, making it work in a world that is not yours. Because disabilities often intimidate people who don’t have one, any common ground goes a long way. It shakes up the assumption that we’re unknowable and you should keep your distance (which is a way ableism thrives). Plus, I appreciate anyone who’s been thoughtful about their body and its desires. They haven’t felt what I’ve felt – and that goes both ways – but I know I can initiate body talk without facing skepticism right out of the gate.
6. They know when to sit down.
“If someone was awkward about disability I would say ‘there’s this girl called Carrie Wade, she has this column on Autostraddle, and you should probably read that.’ Because I don’t think I could say anything. I would give them your stuff and say ‘now you know.’ You say it better than I ever could.”
“No one should laud me because I’m friends with you or talk to you and understand you. It just pulls the focus to me. ‘Can you believe that I’m friends with this disabled person? I must be amazing!’. It just feels like the wrong thing to draw focus to.”
Of course, I also mean that literally – they know that after a certain amount of walking, we should probably sit down – but here’s where we flirt with the line between friendship and allyship.
My friends don’t pretend to be disability experts just because they know me. What that tells me is they’re not interested in our friendship as a testament to their own nobility or open mind. The pity friendship – where the able-bodied person comes down from Mount Olympus to grace me with their presence, and learns so much about the meaning of life along the way – is a much simpler pill to swallow. It plays right into our cultural assumption that being disabled sucks and makes it impossible for anyone to actually like you. Watching my friends cede space on my behalf, recognizing that sometimes it’s not about them – it lets me know they have no time for that nonsense. It proves they were listening. It makes me feel seen.
7. And they always make sure I am feeling myself.
“You just came into yourself, and you owned something you hadn’t wanted to own, and it just blossomed into this really exciting thing. You became a lot more confident, and a lot changed. It seemed like you were more empowered, more self-assured, and everything kind of deepened in a way that was really cool to watch.”
“I just think you’re cool. You’re my show off friend. Like, “oh, see, I have cool friends! Here’s Carrie! She’s really funny and charming!”. You know what I mean? It’s like when you say ‘here’s my cool music, here’s my cool outfit’ – here’s my cool friend.”
Because the world sure as hell isn’t telling me my body matters. And having able-bodied friends who do, who affirm me precisely for standing out, means I don’t have to accept pity masked as kindness. I can expect more, and better.
“I don’t have to tell you you’re attractive, because you know you’re attractive.”
No cure necessary.